Something strange inhabits the air above Nampa. Something old, noisy, camouflaged and capable of buzzing over a golf course with such ferocity, you will be left white-knuckling your putter and crying for reinforcements. I know because I have been there. I have gripped that wee club, gawked skyward like a fairway Neanderthal, and felt that old "fight or flight" chest-quake set in. (The correct choice, by the way, is to flee.)
But I have also been on the other end: in the belly of the green beast--or more accurately, in the spine of a restored Curtiss P-40N Kittyhawk fighter-bomber--doing a barrel roll over the sugar beet factory and thinking, "If only those ants down there knew how badass I am," before thrusting my head shoulder-deep into an impromptu Wal-Mart barf bag. I have even heard my pilot, one John Curtiss Paul (named after the plane in which we were riding) proclaim the fateful words, "I promise I won't pull an Appleton." Gawd bless you, Mr. Micron CEO, for giving a reporter something to laugh at while hyperventilating like a machine gun.
The Warhawk Air Museum, located at the Nampa Municipal Airport, is the one place in Idaho where such retro-debauchery is possible. In fact, it's one of a tiny handful of locations nationwide at which civilians are allowed to fly in the copilot's seat of such a rare bird as the P-40. If you have ever witnessed one of the less than two dozen operable P-40s in the world flying overhead, chances are good the aircraft is connected to John Paul (father of my pilot), the world's preeminent expert on the planes, who also happens to be the Warhawk's president. He and his wife Sue Paul, the museum's Executive Director, have impulsively dashed to remote locales worldwide in search of plane parts for almost 40 years, owned the planes featured in the movie Pearl Harbor, and since 1989, opened their hangars to Treasure Valley history buffs.
And yet, despite all the blaring engines, gun barrels and racy nose art, Sue has the gall to insist the Warhawk Air Museum is not, in fact, an air museum. It's not even a museum. No, the Warhawk is "an experience of the American people during the 1940s," she explains. "A people-oriented time machine, where almost everybody leaves having learned something new about our country." It would be easy to dismiss this statement as an attempt to draw in members of the gender that wasn't allowed to fight in World War II were it not completely true. The Warhawk's name may reek of battle, but the museum blossomed out of home front memorabilia.
"When [John and I] moved to Idaho in 1986, we had no plans at all to start a museum," Sue recalls. "All we had were two Curtiss P-40s, but the interest in them was so extreme that people soon started bringing us all sorts of things that had to do with the World War II era." She spins an odd image, of wide-eyed yokels laying historical relics as gifts at the feet of the heroic aviator, and not surprisingly, admits that she and John "felt very uncomfortable about [the artifacts]. Eventually, we felt the need to start a museum so that they would be valued and preserved properly."
Some of the rarest and most bizarre of these pieces include a wedding dress made from the silk parachute of a presumably dead Japanese soldier, an original set of famous "Varga" playing cards featuring paintings of nude women, and several shelves of "trench art." The last of these phenomena is perhaps the most striking to modern peacenik sensibilities, as it showcases the unusual imaginative endeavors of soldiers during the extended downtime between battles, in hospitals and prisons. Bullet casings were made into a cane. Mortar shells and helmets were forged into lamps and vases. The effect of these sundries is both eerie and robotic, like a POW camp of misfit toys.
But merely to locate oddities like these at the Warhawk would be a feat worthy of a medal, because the entire 17,000-square foot facility, opened in 2001 as an upgrade to a former Caldwell site, is packed to the gills with memorabilia. From the warfront, the volunteer staff looks after six planes, a Link Trainer flight simulator, a mega-rare Norton Bombsight, dozens of uniforms, survival gear kits and tools of indecipherable use. From the home front, they dust case upon case of antique toys, quilts, posters, ration books, V-Mail (letters photographed on microfiche in order to conserve space) and countless other well-maintained relics of both local and national value.
Some objects are rare, others common, while still others, like salt and pepper shakers and savings bonds are so common that one can easily look right past them. But those are the items that cause Sue to label the Warhawk an "experience" rather than a museum. "Thousands of visitors that come through comment on how they have never seen so much personal home front memorabilia from soldiers and families," she reports. "But little personal things like that are what set this museum apart from other museums."
"It didn't matter who you were or how old you were back then, you were involved in the war," adds Kellie Dean, the Museum's Education Director and wrangler of the over 6,000 students who visit annually. "It's great to show kids and visitors what that total immersion was like." Appropriately, the museum brings in dozens of local veterans to tell along with showing, along with ongoing involvement in the Veteran's History Project, a national mission to record oral histories of surviving veterans.
With even more donations and loaned items pouring in, though, the Pauls are faced with the necessity of expanding their current facility sometime in the next year. Sue predicts the growth will take the form of a 1950s and 1960s "experience" in the same warfront-technology-meets-homefront-miscellany mold they have taken with the 1940s. "We want you to feel that you are inundated with Korea and Vietnam, and that you have progressed through time to get there," Sue explains. As such, the Pauls are frantically assembling new additions like a Vietnam-era F-86 Saber Jet (currently a heap of parts beside the Museum's victory garden) and perhaps even an A-1 Huey Helicopter.
On the more immediate horizon, the second of the Warhawk's two annual "Warbird Invitationals" will take place on August 21 and 22. My fated flight took place at the first, a P-51 Mustang invitational, which showcased four immaculately restored fighters flying in formation. The upcoming event will revolve around an immense Mitchell B-25 Bomber, the most widely used bomber in any theater of World War II. Visitors will be able to crawl into the belly of the grounded craft, pay to take a few runs over select Canyon County targets, or simply gape as the B-25 taxies around and roars above them. After all, Sue states, "People should not only be able to see these pieces of art, but hear them and smell them, too. We believe that these planes should be flying, and we're fortunate that so many people who have become attached to the museum share our focus." That staunch commitment to the power of senses and experience, be it of a bomber or a salt shaker, is what elevates the Warhawk from a mere factual deluge into a gallery of the art of war.
Warhawk Air Museum, 201 Municipal Drive, Nampa, 465-6446, summer hours: Tu-Sa: 10 a.m.-5 p.m., Su: 11 a.m.-5 p.m., www.warhawkairmuseum.org.